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EU-South Caucasus: Human Rights Benchmarks Needed

EU-South Caucasus: Concrete Human Rights Benchmarks Needed

EU Should Not Squander Leverage on Human Rights in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia

The European Union should press for concrete benchmarks on torture, freedom of expression and other key human rights issues on Monday when it holds ministerial-level meetings with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The European Union is holding these annual meetings in Brussels under the framework of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with the three countries. Under its European Neighbourhood Policy, the European Union is currently negotiating “action plans” with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia that will set concrete benchmarks for progress in a range of areas, including human rights. Closer economic, social and cultural ties with the European Union will depend on whether countries fulfill the benchmarks, giving the European Union significant leverage on human rights issues in the countries of the south Caucasus, Human Rights Watch said.

“This meeting gives the European Union a unique opportunity to press Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia for concrete progress on human rights,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “EU governments should not miss this chance to encourage tangible improvements on human rights in these countries.”

The European Union has a poor track record in using its Partnership and Cooperation Council meetings to extract concrete commitments in human rights. Although significant human rights problems have plagued each of the countries of the south Caucasus since their independence from the former Soviet Union, the conclusions issued after past Cooperation Council meetings have failed to reflect these concerns adequately.

“EU cooperation with the south Caucasus countries needs to include a public acknowledgment of ongoing human rights problems,” said Cartner. “Without admitting that human rights violations exist in these countries, the European Union cannot expect to address them in a meaningful way.”

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have all expressed a strong desire to develop closer ties with the European Union. They have also promised improvements in human rights compliance. Despite limited progress in some areas, reforms have been slow and inadequately implemented in all three countries.

Torture and ill-treatment in custody, abusive law enforcement authorities, lack of independence of judges and lawyers and restrictions on freedom of the press remain ongoing problems in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Armenia: The Armenian government continues to use its powers to limit political activity, restricting freedom of assembly and persecuting those that it perceives as a threat to its hold on power. Human rights defenders critical of the government are particularly targeted for abuse. In the past year, such pressure extended to the ombudsperson’s office, following the release of her first annual report, which criticized the government for its human rights record.

Torture and ill-treatment in police custody are widespread in Armenia, particularly in pretrial detention with the aim of coercing a confession or evidence against third parties. Abuse and mistreatment within the army is also common, with dozens of suspicious deaths occurring every year.

Despite the emergence of significant independent and opposition print media, the government continues to restrict full media freedom in the country, including taking away the broadcasting frequencies of television channels that air independent news coverage about Armenia.

Azerbaijan: The Azerbaijani government actively persecutes those it perceives to be critical of its policies. Torture, police abuse and excessive use of force by security forces are widespread, particularly in pretrial detention, where torture and other abuses are used to coerce a confession or other information from a detainee.

In response to strong international pressure, authorities released more than 100 political prisoners in the run-up to a June deadline set by the Council of Europe. Nevertheless, other political prisoners remain in custody, and Azerbaijan has yet to find a permanent solution to this problem, including increasing the independence of the judiciary. Throughout the year, opposition supporters have been imprisoned and charged in what appear to be politically motivated cases.

The government pressures opposition and independent media outlets by limiting their access to printing facilities and distribution networks, by initiating defamation cases resulting in the imposition of crippling fines, by restricting access to official information, and by harassing journalists. The authorities continue to deny registration to many human rights NGOs, usually on minor technical grounds. Human rights defenders continue to fall victim to physical and verbal attacks, and other forms of harassment.

Azerbaijan has a history of seriously flawed elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that although there had been some improvements in election procedures, the November parliamentary elections fell short of international standards. The OSCE noted violations such as harassment of opposition supporters, intimidation of observers, tampering with election protocol results and ballot-box stuffing.

Human Rights Watch has continued to document incidents of intimidation and persecution of independent and opposition candidate supporters after the elections. The government has investigated some election violations highlighted by the international community, but has yet to take comprehensive steps to end impunity for officials who committed the abuses and ensure that they are not repeated in the post-election environment.

Georgia: The government of President Mikheil Saakashvili has had an uneven record on human rights since it gained power following the “Rose Revolution” in late 2003. Despite the government’s ambitious reform agenda, human rights abuses continue unchecked in many spheres, following patterns established under previous governments.

Constitutional amendments adopted in 2004 increased the president’s influence over the judiciary, further eroding judicial independence. A subsequent presidential decree issued in April led to the dismissal of significant numbers of judges through an arbitrary decision-making process that failed to set clear criteria for deciding which judges would be removed from their positions.

Although the media is now relatively free, it has become less critical of the government, and there are signs of increasing government influence on media content.

The government has taken some positive steps to prevent torture, but torture and due process violations continue to be reported. Refugees, mainly from Chechnya, remain vulnerable to abuse at the hands of the police and other authorities.

“The EU should only agree to action plans that set concrete benchmarks and specific timelines for progress on human rights,” said Cartner. “And the EU must firmly state the consequences if these countries fail to comply.”

Human Rights Watch said that the European Union should publicly communicate such an approach after its meeting with the three governments on Monday.

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